It’s a case that has inspired American pop culture since it happened 65 years ago. Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate were a teenaged Bonnie and Clyde for the 1950s. In ’58, they murdered her family, holed up in her house for almost a week, hit the roads of Nebraska and went on a merciless killing spree. Starkweather was an 18-year-old ne’er-do-well. Fugate was a 14-year-old Lolita in love with her quintessential all-American bad boy. The couple’s story inspired movies like 1963’s The Sadist, 1993’s Natural Born Killers and 1973’s Badlands, as well as the Bruce Springsteen song of the same name.
‘The 12th Victim’ Dissects the Heart of an American Tragedy
Unfortunately for almost everyone involved, much of this popular narrative is false. The reality, as thoroughly dissected in Showtime’s new documentary series, The 12th Victim, paints a far more complex picture — one that thoroughly exonerates Fugate for her role in the killings. By the end of four gripping episodes, what becomes clear is that this was not a story of youthful rebellion and lust run amok. It was a kidnapping, a major miscarriage of justice and one of the most egregious incidents of victim blaming in our nation’s history.
Starkweather was a remorseless spree killer who murdered 11 people in cold blood, alright. But Fugate wasn’t willingly along for the ride; she was a terrified hostage. After she finally escaped from Starkweather, the newly orphaned Fugate’s fortitude and survival was rewarded with a first degree murder conviction. She was the youngest person in American history ever charged with the crime.
One of the many pertinent points hammered home by The 12th Victim is that Fugate’s version of events never wavered, no matter how many years passed. She told the same story under hypnosis and, at one point in the 1980s, she was found to be truthful by a televised lie detector test.
Fugate’s version of events goes like this: After attempting to break up with Starkweather because she thought he was “crazy,” Fugate arrived home from school one day to find him in her house and armed. Starkweather told Fugate that if she didn’t do exactly as he instructed that he would have her family killed, including her beloved sister Betty-Jean, who was just two years old at the time. Starkweather told Fugate that her family were being held by associates of his and that she must go with him if she wanted them to live. She had no idea that Starkweather had already slaughtered her parents and baby sister and hidden their bodies.
After they hit the road, Starkweather killed almost everyone he and Fugate crossed paths with. By the time the pair were finally cornered by police officers, Fugate was in a deeply traumatized state. While Starkweather took on the cops, Fugate ran from their vehicle towards the police, screaming for help and begging them to arrest Starkweather.
Once in custody, one of the first things Fugate asked for was her parents. She spent hours repeatedly begging to see her mother. Eventually an officer blurted out, “My God, girl, don’t you know they’re all dead?” Fugate became so distressed she had to be forcibly sedated.
In contrast, Starkweather proudly admitted to his crimes and, initially at least, stated that Fugate was indeed his hostage. As weeks dragged on, and as police found a variety of grossly inappropriate ways to pit Starkweather against Fugate, the murderer’s story began changing. By the time he was on death row and given an entire essay in Parade magazine — one of the most popular publications of the time — Starkweather was claiming that his crimes were actually all Fugate’s idea.
“All the time the spree was taking place, I was scared,” Starkweather wrote in Parade. “I was going to give up. Carol then threatened out loud that she wasn’t going to give up ... With a shotgun laying across her lap with the barrel pointing directly at me, and with her fast talking, she convinced me that we didn’t have anything to gain by giving up.”
Despite being patently preposterous, the public ate it up. This version of events lined up with then-popular conservative ideas about the dangers of teen rebellion. And the public desire for answers that made sense were most quickly satiated by the scapegoating of Fugate. Plus, Starkweather’s version was infinitely more titillating for the press to have fun with.
After Starkweather was permitted to testify against Fugate at her trial, he famously stated: “If I fry in the electric chair, she should be sitting in my lap.”
The 12th Victim’s primary focus is consistently the real Caril Ann Fugate — who she was before, during and after the crimes. Particularly heartbreaking to watch are her tireless attempts to prove her innocence — and to consistently demonstrate her good character — throughout the rest of her life.
What elevates The 12th Victim further is the way the series touches on how pop culture can impact justice. Popular pulp fiction of the 1950s indelibly influenced how receptive the public was to Starkweather and the authorities’ portrayal of Fugate. But that sensational false narrative has been getting fed back to us on a cultural loop ever since, keeping the issues (and misogyny) that plagued Fugate’s case ever-present in similar ways. In America, the show successfully argues, we’d always rather hear a story driven by sexualized violence than we would about a young woman surviving an impossible set of circumstances.
The 12th Victim, at least, offers Caril Ann Fugate a final shot at redemption.
‘The 12th Victim’ premieres on Showtime on Feb. 17, 2023. Details here.